“I think we are blind. Blind people who can see, but do not see.” ― José Saramago
Prolific Jon Jost’s videographed Imagens de uma cidade perdida, from Portugal and South Korea, now that I’ve seen it, replaces Lars von Trier’s Melancholia as my choice for the best “film” of 2011. Jost has written about “the Portuguese inclination towards fatalism and sadness,” their saudade. His portrait of modern Lisbon perhaps suggests this (although this would not have occurred to me had I not read Jost’s remark), but reflects as well its mirror-image, the sadness that derives from the gradual loss of everything to Time. Jost has dedicated Imagens to his young daughter, Clara. (For an explanation of the tragic situation involved, see my essay on his 2006 Passages.) Poetic and never poetical, it is a documentary that ferrets out glimpses of human and material disrepair. Only children at play and hands at work hammering pieces of stone into the sand to create an alley pathway—something for future feet—escape the pervasive tenor of loss, exhaustion, dilapidation. We witness people who are being, or feeling, left behind in a globalized city dropping from its historical and cultural stature into the Third World.
Jost casts his camera behind and under places and structures, favoring peoples’ backs. (A mischievous boy, though, pops his face into the camera; we enjoy following his vivid shirt to the far back of the frame and again up front.) The framing divides and otherwise restricts exterior space. The opening static, long-held shot is behind a residential structure—a house, I think—and another, an apartment building, with an alley in between the two. Children play. On a bench, closer to us, her back towards us, a solitary older woman sits; at one point, the boy mockingly kisses her and is reprimanded, presumably by his mother. The woman sits and sits; is she observing, or simply staring into space? Is she as much remembering as living?—inside her head in the past, or in the moment? Eventually she is joined by a neighbor her age. They softly converse. What of life has slipped away from them? Both are nearly as stationary as the camera—so much so, in fact, that when the first woman, alone, reaches once to the ground, this motion of hers perplexes and unsettles.
Jost’s video passes between substantiality and abstraction; sometimes, abstract images are conjoined with clear, immediate sounds, or substantial images are conjoined with abstract sounds, the echo-y or distant sounds of seeming voices of the past. Images also pass between color and monochrome. An overhead long-shot, seemingly black-and-white, studies children at play in the street. They resemble the blind, groping, evolutionary beetles in Robert Browning’s poem “Two in the Campagna.” Individually some of them may have futures; but, visually, vertically, the group of them, however young, are imagined lost to Time. In time, most everything we see and hear in this “film” becomes a metaphor.
The governing one, because it evolves into a metaphor for the creative process that is generating Imagens, as well as a wider metaphor for the narrow, peripherally blind purposefulness of our laboring lives, shows masculine hands at work constructing the aforementioned pathway. The activity is “in the moment,” direct and immediate, except that the abstraction achieved by focusing only on hands almost feverishly busy amidst speechlessness and the alienating sound of hammer on stone, consigns it to something more elusive than a material dimension. Later, a dissolve restores the activity, now approaching completion, to our view. Both passages seem to be in black and white—until a glimpse of a worker’s blue jeans enters the frame: as quietly explosive a visual gesture as when the woman on the bench reached momentarily to the ground. Is it an illusion that the present seems capable of redeeming, however briefly, whatever has been lost to Time?
For a long time, Imagens remains out of doors, in a way separating us, as well as the people themselves, from the stability of their lives. Eventually, the camera is indoors—for instance, at a window observing a municipal bus, as well as other traffic, outside. Darkness; covered with blinds, the window—or another window—is doubly mysterious. Jost applies distortion to create the illusion that the venetian blinds and window are undulating—breathing. It is a blind and labored—a mortal—breath. Sound, also, seems distant, ghostly. The occupants of the house or apartment, although it is their own struggle, are themselves blind to the struggle at the window.
Imagens de uma cidade perdida, outdoors again, closes on an older gentleman occupying a bench. The image startles for two reasons. This bench, on the street, isn’t shot from behind; we are given a lateral view. The solitary occupant, moreover, seems to be in the throes of anguish or terrible pain. Rather than sitting upright and facing forward, he is all over the bench, as though he were using it to hold himself together. We are seeing how he feels—for whatever cause. Jost doesn’t budge the camera, and we cannot help but see. Is it Portugal’s experience of fascism, which an earlier inserted passage addressed, what is weighing on this man? Is his health, like his city, in disrepair? We do not know, we will never know; but we cannot help but see.
Lisbon is a city that has never meant anything to me. Now it will haunt me for the rest of my life.
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